Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Happy Festivus!

Today is Festivus!

As is fitting, I would like to end the year with the Airing of Grievances. It has been a bad year for my blog, and I'm feeling a little testy. I have five grievances. If they make you mad, well, come at me with your feats of strength. Hopefully, though, you'll chuckle instead.

5. AUTO TUNE. I like my fruit fresh, not in a can. I like my vegetable fresh, not in a can. I like my meat grilled, not in a can. I guess I'm not a big fan of cans. That's why I like my music with real voices and real instruments, which is getting harder and harder to find, at least on the radio. I know I'm old school, but super-synthesized and auto-tuned doesn't do it for me. Nor does DJ-generated turntablism. Give me the sound of the guitar fingers sliding, the bass rumbling, the raspy voice breaking, and the leather pants stretching anytime. Okay, maybe we can do without the leather pants, but for goodness sake, if you can't sing the song in tune, you probably aren't that good.

4. ANGRY ATHEISTS. Congratulations! You've discovered enlightenment and are now smarter than the rest of the human race. Unfortunately, your new-found uber-humanity seems to have upset you. That's why you insist on posting angry articles declaring that Jesus is as real as the Easter Bunny and Christians are holding onto our outdated beliefs like hoarders on the set of the Home Shopping Network. I'm not sure why you're so mad at people who believe. Did someone take your favorite toy or something? Anyway, there's a lot in the universe we don't understand--so maybe a little faith and mystery will bring some cheer back into your world.

3. ANGRY CHRISTIANS. Speaking of angry, atheists aren't the only ones who seem angry these days. Why do so many Christians seem angry about things that Jesus isn't angry about? Signs that say Happy Holidays? People who favor gun control? Obamacare? Donald Trump? Political debates? Red cups at Starbucks? Chick Fil-A being closed on Sundays?

Jesus got angry at religious hypocrites and anyone who made it harder to get to his Father. We might do well to follow his example, at least in how we present ourselves in social media.

2. NFL INSTANT REPLAY. Fans of the Sunday Synagogue are always ranting about poor officiating. I am guilty as charged. But instant replay, designed to "get it right," only makes things irreducibly complex. The ability to slow plays down into nanoseconds and watch them from a gazillion different angles makes them indecipherable. Did he catch it or bobble it? Did it hit the ground or just a blade of grass? Is a blade of grass considered the ground? Was his arm moving forward to throw or was he just waving to his mother? As he tumbled to the ground like the lunar module, was there control--defined by 76.5 lbs per square inch of pressure on the ball--or did the ball just rotate with the earth? After the interception, did he perform a football move, or was he just reenacting a scene from Magic Mike? Or my personal favorite, Let's check the spot of the ball to see if it made it to the 41.9846 yard line (though on the previous play it was tossed to the ground with all the care of a half-eaten chicken wing). Watching the NFL is like watching Inception; the layers get deeper and deeper until we can no longer tell if we're watching replay, real life, or the Miss Universe pageant. "Ladies and Gentlemen, 43 years later, the Immaculate Reception is still under review."

1. NEW YEARS RESOLUTIONS. Who's idea was this, anyway? We take an otherwise relaxing holiday and turn it into a guilt trip and 365-day reminder of how little self-control and discipline we have. I had some amazing resolutions coming into this year -- encourage 6 people daily (fail), go to the gym 200 times (fail), write a blog every other week (fail), and read 30 books (done). I'm one for four, which even upon review by NFL officials, would mean I SUCK. New Year's Day is like the cake you haven't even eaten yet, and might never eat, but feel guilty for wanting to eat, and awful after you eat it. I resolve to strengthen my resolve to not make resolutions this year.

Happy Festivus, everyone, and more importantly, MERRY CHRISTMAS, too!

Monday, September 28, 2015

The God of the 99

Youth pastors, trying to appear humble and spiritual, will tell you numbers don't matter. We lie. Sometimes they matter. A lot.

Last night there were 99 people at our high school youth ministry, which we call SOS. The name is a mystery to most, but it actually stands for "Stoked On Sunday," a tag I brought from my days in Denver, where people tend to say the word stoked a lot. For the past 15 years, we have been gathering students and youth leaders together on Sunday nights to talk about God and hang out together.

I still remember my first Sunday night at Mountain View. It was May 2000, and I was a candidate for the youth pastor job. As part of my vetting, I was asked to meet with the few high school students of the church. There were about 10 of them gathered in Dave Carruther's living room. The church had only existed a couple of years, so they didn't know each other very well and didn't seem to care. We played a stupid game where you make shapes out of bubble gum. I'm pretty sure they were all thinking, "loser."

I got the job anyway.

That fall we started a youth ministry from scratch. The high school kids met in a nice basement in Holly Hills. I recruited my first high school volunteers, Scott and Erika Rape. The kids were cool, they seemed to like me, and pretty soon we had 25 or more every week. We started small groups. We talked about the Bible. We ate a lot of pizza and shot a lot of pool.

Over the years things steadily grew and changed. We met in lots of different locations. We filled the basements of Katsotises, Sheehys, Joneses, Leggits. We romped around the corridors of the Landon House for four years. We'd average 35 or 40 kids, maybe 50 on a big night. We added lots of great volunteers. We did so many retreats, mission trips and conferences that sometimes I felt like a travel agent instead of a youth pastor. Even with all the changes and activity, I remember nearly every student who was ever a part of our ministry.

Five years ago, things changed dramatically. We opened our new building, home of the coolest youth room in Frederick County, which we called the PIT. We optimistically bought 80 chairs. We had live music and a snack bar and a legit arcade-grade air hockey table. We had modular sofas aptly named "Love Sacs" and tons of pictures on the walls. The night we opened, we had about 75 people. We settled at an average of 50 or so. We've grown steadily since. Last year we bought 20 more chairs to accommodate that growth. You can do the math. It has been very rewarding and humbling. I reflect on it often, and I'm blessed to have been a part of this.

Yet, despite the success we've had, I still have doubts and fears. Mine is this: I worry that I'm getting too old for this. I worry that I will lose my relevance, my youthfulness, my ability to relate to students, my identity as a youth pastor. I worry that I'll be left in the dust, like an old piece of stereo equipment in the digital age. This has been my life's work--what will become of me when I'm no longer "Pastor Steve" to the students of Mountain View?

In a moment of vulnerability, I shared this with the students at SOS last night. I talked about fear and how it hinders our relationship with God. Fear is really lack of trust that God is powerful and that he is good. The truth is, we all have fears which hinder our relationship with God. High school students have lots of them -- the fear of being alone, the fear of being left out, the fear of failure, the fear or unrealized dreams. I'm sure you have your own fears. They are always with us, reminding us we're not in control. The key to defeating them is to remind ourselves what God has done for us, and that he is capable of even greater things.

This morning I awakened with a refreshing sense of confidence. I looked at last night's attendance and smiled. 99 is such a unique number. It represents where we've come from, and where we are going. It represents what God has done, and a threshold we are going to cross. There may be 99 in the fold--a beautiful number to be sure--but there is always room for another. God makes room. And he makes room for us to play an important role in his work of adding to the flock. I have 99 reasons to trust God's faithfulness, and one big reason to keep going. I don't know why I ever doubt him.

I trust the God of the 99. I hope you do, too.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Dog Years

It started as a conspiracy; four members of my family plotting behind my back, devising their manipulative plan while I was at work. The plan hatched into the open one night at dinner, timed perfectly amidst my giant bite of spaghetti so I would be rendered helpless to respond without spewing food.

"We should get a dog," Karen said.

"Yeah, Dad, we should get a dog," echoed three smaller voices in unison--big, hopeful smiles on their cherubic faces.

It was January 2004. We had lived in Walkersville for three and a half years. The boys were 12, 10 and 6. Our lives were full of family, church, and sports. Our home was simple but warm. Life was good.

I chewed my spaghetti and looked at the four sets of eyes staring me down, their pleading smiles reaching into my chest to tug on my heart. I stayed calm. "No way," I said after swallowing. I played it cool, as if I had known about their secret whispers all along.

"Why not?" asked Karen with that look that always gets what it wants from me, the one in which emotion defeats logic.

Why not? I thought to myself? Why should we? It seemed wrong on every level. I'd never had a dog. Dogs are work. Dogs are dirty. Dogs are like children, only worse. And by golly, they are expensive, with their shots and food and vet bills. We were a one-income family in a tiny house with barely enough money to buy name-brand cereal. We already had three boys running around making messes everywhere. We didn't need another source of chaos.

With self assurance, I assumed my role as PD (Practical Dad) to squelch the uprising. I suggested these reasons, and others, and gave a firm, "No."

All of which fell on ears as deaf as a doorknob.

"We've all discussed it, and we think it's a good idea," said Jonathan, the oldest at 12, speaking for the conspirators.

I responded with my trump card, holding out hope that perhaps my supreme logic would draw the lone other adult in the room to see the foolishness of this idea. "You know who would end up caring for it, don't you?" I said to all involved. "Your mother." I dropped the words on the table like Thor's hammer, certain of victory.

Two weeks later, a smelly and excitable puppy ran around our kitchen as the boys squealed with delight. Jonathan named her Treble.

Treble had quite a backstory. Her mother was a Jack Russell who had been featured in the Frederick News-Post because she had been running free on the base of Ft. Detrick, escaping capture for a number of months. During the winter, she had three puppies, all of whom took on the characteristics of their part-husky/part-beagle father. It was hard to imagine the exchange, but the result was an extraordinary mix of true dog snout, beautiful markings, and poor behavior.

The poor behavior was nearly enough to drive us insane. Daily garbage shredding. Leash-straining so relentless we thought she was going to choke herself. She gained a reputation as a runner, jumping over our fence and running off to herd the cows in the field behind our house. More than once the whole Anderson family was seen chasing her across the train tracks into the park. She once broke her leash and ran off into a lake, only to return soaking wet and sheepishly unrepentant. She was blacklisted from one kennel for her behavior, and once bit a veterinarian to the tune of three stitches. We soon learned it was nearly impossible to take her to ballgames or picnics because she would not settle down. We tried to expend her energy in the backyard, chasing her in figure eights until we were panting harder than she was.

And the eating! My goodness, that dog would eat herself to death if possible. She once stole four double cheeseburgers off the counter. She devoured a pan of delicious breaded chicken Karen had lovingly made for dinner. She ate butter, cream cheese, tampons, socks, and cat poop. When she wasn't eating, she would groke--relentlessly groke.

Groke (v) origin unknown: To silently watch someone while they are eating, hoping to be invited to join them.

During every meal, every snack, every bowl of cereal, Treble would stare at us, eyes fixed with a look of entitlement and inevitability.

Treble was a bad dog. I was so right. Getting her was the most impractical thing we'd ever done

But as you've probably guessed by now--I was also so wrong.

She nestled into our family routine like a warm, comfortable blanket. She would spend the evenings in the middle of wherever people were gathered, even though it meant we had to step over her. She would allow each of us to be in her face, her ears back in total submission and trust as she rolled onto her back for a "rubbing of the tum." She would let Tim hold her snout and blow in her nose like a balloon. She gained the surprisingly neat habit of only pooping at the fence line of our property so that we didn't have to clean up after her. She stopped running and became easier to manage. And when we would return from being out of town for a few days, we would be greeted by a jumping, dancing and yelping of joy so inexpressible and thick, it would bring tears to your eyes. She loved us. And we loved her.

A few years ago, she tore her ACL. It eventually healed itself, but it slowed her down. She gained some weight, mellowed out. She became the most docile, loving creature you could ever imagine. People could do no wrong to her, and her gentleness was a gift to us.

Karen indeed ended up being the one who did most of her care, but I'm convinced I am her favorite. She is my "other girl." In recent years, as Karen returned to work, I received the privilege of being the designated walker. Our trips around the neighborhood in the morning have been a blessing to me. I lovingly chatted with her as we walked, and dutifully picked up after her like a bridesmaid carrying her train. I loved giving the "Poop Wave" to my neighbors as they drove to work. (See March 12, 2014 blog). I adore my dog, and she adores me.

Now she is dying.

About four weeks ago, Treble awakened us in the middle of the night, whining and scratching. I found her pressing her empty water dish up against the wall. We had already filled it several times that day. We knew something was wrong. Lots of tests have followed, with a variety of vague diagnoses. Doggie Diabetes was one of them, but our training in giving insulin proved to be in vain. She has stopped eating altogether. It seems to be a matter of days now. I have seen each member of our family taking our private moments with her, and girding ourselves for the difficult day that will soon be here. I'm glad all five of us are here to say our goodbyes. We should have no regrets, only sadness and gratefulness.

The dog years began 11 1/2 years ago, and though I got a late start, they now represent 1/5 of my life. They began with no teenagers in the house yet, and will conclude with only one remaining. The fact that her life coincides with the raising of our sons causes me to reflect upon the brevity of life and the quick passing of parenthood. Wasn't it only yesterday Treble chased Jonathan, Timothy and Thomas as they played whiffleball in the backyard? It's too much to bear if I think about it too long, my heart both full and achingly wistful at the same time.

Mostly, I am grateful. Though once I was blind, now I see. Treble has made sure of that. I am a full-fledged dog lover. In the bigger picture, Treble has helped me realize how chaos and expense are small prices to pay for the richness of relationships, human and canine alike. Practical Dad needed to be defeated, and he was. And as I grieve her impending loss, I wonder if perhaps I'll see her again in God's perfect future, for surely paradise includes everyone's Treble. "In this world you will have Treble, but take heart, I have overcome the world."

The dog years have been the best years of my life.